Toni Morrison: Author Helped Black People See Themselves in Stories - Rolling Stone
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For Toni Morrison, Who Taught Me to See

By rejecting the “white gaze,” the great American author helped black people see ourselves in our stories, and confronted America with the truth about itself

Pulitzer prize winning author, Toni Morrison, 77, is photographed in her New York apartment .Toni Morrison, in her New York apartment. (Photo by Timothy Fadek/Corbis via Getty Images)Pulitzer prize winning author, Toni Morrison, 77, is photographed in her New York apartment .Toni Morrison, in her New York apartment. (Photo by Timothy Fadek/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison wrote.

Timothy Fadek/Corbis/Getty Images

I write directly to you, Ms. Morrison, because I know no other way to do this. It is a selfish act, since I currently lack any faith that some divine deliverer or cosmic accident will get this message to you as easily as if I’d sent it to your Princeton mailbox. But I have tried a number of different methods of conjugating my emotions in this moment, and this is what keeps coming out: the letter of appreciation that I should have sent long before now, when you could have read it.

You died at the age of 88 on Monday, and we all found out the next morning. We felt your loss not just as if you were a personal hero or even a family member. It was as though they had lost a digit or a limb, something that America cannot grow back.

I was reminded, however, that I hadn’t lost my eyes, since your words, Ms. Morrison, taught me to see.

I grew up in suburban Cleveland, less than an hour east of your hometown of Lorain, Ohio. The power that the knowledge of your provenance gave me went well beyond civic vanity. Knowing that the great Toni Morrison was from practically right up the road made me feel as though I’d been born on Krypton.

However, I had what most what regard as excellent schooling, though to my recollection virtually none of the books I was assigned from first through 12th grade were written by black authors. I’d largely fallen in love with material grounded in white settings, with white perspectives. My parents did what they could to supplement my education and I was too voracious a reader then not to have eventually found black authors like yourself, but I was still bathed in the white gaze.

Aren’t we all, still? In virtually every arena of American life, even still, we as black folks are reminded that we are not the primary audience. In our fiction and non-fiction alike, it continues to show evidence (which I did not so easily recognize as a child) of the willful omission of terroristic violence against our ancestors, replaced by the air of condescension and the subtle language of subjugation. The white gaze, as you have remarked previously, gets little black girls in the Jim Crow South to think that they’re uglier than the blonde dolls that they may be playing with. The white gaze is what steers conceptions of everything from Americanness to masculinity. In its most astigmatic forms, this gaze may even tell a white cop that a 12-year-old black boy is 20 years of age and threatening his life. 

The white gaze also blasts into American politics like a flashlight into our eyes during a traffic stop. Constantly, especially under this president, people of color are reminded that we are the fodder, not the focus, for a particular political message. How could we be, when the preservation of whiteness is the goal? 

But as you yourself say in the new documentary about your life, the same is even true of Frederick Douglass. Forgive me for citing you back to yourself, but when you said, “He’s not talking to me,” I hoped as I watched that it would resonate with those who watched, black and non-black alike. Douglass was holding back, as was Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man. “Invisible to whom?” you asked. I loved how how Farah Jasmine Griffin, who was one of my English professors in college, remarked in the film with mock surprise: “How dare she question the great novel?” But as she noted, you were only questioning the perspective of our oppressors. “Guess what: there’s this whole other world going on when they aren’t even looking.”  

I can’t remember whether I read your earliest novels in Griffin’s class or not, but it was around then that I began to understand how this could be decoded on the page, because before then I had never read black stories so utterly washed clean of the white explanation of black circumstance. Ironically, you so helpfully laid this all out to Charlie Rose during that 1998 interview: you said that you wrote The Bluest Eye so that you would have a book that you wanted to read, one “that had no codes, no little notes explaining things to white people, no little clues.”

Of course, there were so many who did not want you to write this way. You spoke often of that 1973 New York Times review, the one of your second novel, Sula. Meant somehow as a compliment, the reviewer offers that “Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.” Heaven forbid you never write about white people! It fit your observation: “Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”

My Ohio pride aside, your unerring dedication to telling black stories with respect for black intelligence and history is why your writing mattered so much to me. It gave me the first understanding that not only had I been limited primarily to white books about white people, but that even our own stories about ourselves and the history of our diaspora were being told with the assumption that we weren’t the consumers of our own narratives. Through your prose, you offered an analysis of our relationship to ourselves and to American power dynamics at large. Doing so from our perspective surely helped many white readers, but I can only speak for myself, which I suppose is the point of this letter.

We only tire ourselves explaining and justifying our existence in this country, as you also observed in 1975 at Portland State. You understood so acutely the evils working not just to derail our works but our joy. Hence, the black gaze that you put into that book and every one that followed unlocked things in me as a man and as a writer that, thankfully, I have never able to put away since.

Since your death, I have seen many lamentations for the fact that we have lost you now, at this moment, when your words may have helped to inspire or inflame where needed. What more can we ask of you, Ms. Morrison? This is when we need to be reaching for your sun, impossible as that may seem. Your skill may have been without equal, but you did pave a path to get there with your love for us as black people. We’ll continue on down that road, and perhaps see you waiting for us at the end with your patented smile. It’ll be nice to finally meet you.

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